Constructing migrant care labor: A study of institutional process and the discourse of migration and work

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Migrant care workers, Labor migration, Institutional ethnography, Taiwan, Relations of ruling

Subject Categories



This qualitative study examines how gendered and racialized organizations and processes mediate migrant care labor, specifically live-in care workers who care for the ill, elderly, and people with disabilities, in Taiwan. Using institutional ethnography, the study relies upon interviews, participant observation, and textual analysis to explore the relations of ruling that shape local experiences. The investigation is rooted in the everyday practices and activities of live-in migrant care workers; it identifies the sequences of institutional processes that organize the workers' lives at different times and in different spaces, and shows how those processes are coordinated by various social agents, including employers, care recipients, recruitment agencies, workers, governmental officials, medical professionals and others.

The analysis shows how state policy, regulations, and media discourses combine to situate migrant workers in a gendered and racialized segregated labor market. As a result, workers' labor in general, and live-in migrant care workers specifically, become invisible and disposable. The analysis also illuminates how care needs are defined and regulated through the practices of medical professionals and the state, and demonstrates that the state-constructed care needs are alien from the everyday experiences of actual people, including care recipients, their family members and care workers. Besides state and medical professionals, private recruiting agents and employers participate in the institutional processes and discourse, which are mediated by social relations of gender, class and race. These actors regulate and discipline workers' bodies through defining the carework workers perform and through recruiting, training, matching workers to particular private households, and managing workers in everyday life. The study offers an expanded conceptualization of the daily practices of carework performed by live-in care workers by describing the interactions between workers, care recipients, and employers; exploring the problem of (in)visible labor; and identifying physical and emotional aspects of the work. The exploration provides an embodied understanding of workers' lives and the work they are doing, contrasting that with the representations produced in the textual administration of carework and by the other social agents.

Adopting institutional ethnography to explore how workers' lives are mediated by a broader social organization and extended social relations, this dissertation contributes to academic and activist communities and policy changes respectively. First, the approach of institutional ethnography distinguishes the current investigation from other studies on migrant domestic workers and care workers. It provides an alternative, which identifies how local activities are shaped by a web of macro relations, and further demonstrates the connection between "local" and "global." Second, the empirical investigation provides the government and advocacy groups with the directions of possible changes through (re)arranging things differently. This dissertation ends with a discussion about feminist ethics of care and the Confucian concept of Jen, which sheds light on possibilities for creating a caring society that benefits not only live-in migrant care workers, but also care recipients, both their families and all of us who live with care.


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